The nation's Catholic bishops on Thursday held their first extended public discussion of the problem, which was highlighted by the release of the two-year study.
"Awareness of the reality is impacting us more and more. We decided we had to take a good hard look at it," said Bishop Richard Hanifen of Colorado Springs, Colo., who led the study.
In 1965, there were 58,132 priests serving 46.6 million parishioners in the United States. Today there are 20% fewer priests and nearly a third more parishioners, the study said.
Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J., said that 20 years from now, his diocese expects to have 192 parish priests, compared with 540 today. And Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry reported that immigration has swollen some parishes in the Los Angeles archdiocese to 18,000 households.
"The problems are simply enormous," he said.
Fewer than 60% of the priests are active in parish work, and more than a quarter of Catholic parishes currently lack a full-time priest.
The situation is expected to worsen due to the rising average age of priests-- currently 57 for those assigned by dioceses--and resulting retirements and deaths, the study said.
The only functions limited to priests are celebration of Mass and granting absolution from sins. But in practice, Catholics expect priests to preside at baptisms, marriages, and funerals and to participate in other parish functions.
Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., summarized the findings of 18 focus groups with priests around the country.
"Many say they feel inadequate, stressed, and exhausted," he said.
He quoted one priest as saying, "There are just too many expectations, too much paperwork, and not enough ministry."
Priests also expressed concern about "increased isolation" and less mentoring from fellow priests.
Two liberal groups, Call to Action of Chicago and the Cleveland-based FutureChurch, issued a statement repeating their call for married priests and women priests. Pope John Paul has ruled out consideration of those changes.
"We're delighted that the U.S. bishops are finally beginning to talk about the critical shortage of priests, but the solutions they are proposing won't solve the problem," said the Rev. Lou Trivison, co-founder of FutureChurch.
The study also pointed to a shortage of replacements. Currently about 3,500 candidates are studying in graduate-level seminaries, down more than 50% from 1965. But enrollments have crept upward the past three years, the study said.
One-fourth of the seminarians are foreign born. In the host Milwaukee archdiocese, for instance, the sole priest ordained this year is from Spain.
Major archdioceses like Boston, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are all ordaining fewer than 10 new priests this year.
Personnel shortages are most severe in the West, where the Catholic population has grown the fastest. Nationwide, the church has one priest for every 1,200 members, but in the West there is one per 1,750 members.
The U.S. church estimates there are 13,000 ordained deacons working either part time or full time. There are also about 81,000 nuns in educational and other ministries, little more than half the 1965 total.